Last night, John McCain went on at length about his imprisonment in Vietnamese POW camps, and indeed his time as a captive in Vietnam has been the spark to his political career since the 1970s. But both McCain — and the video that introduced him — glosses over an earlier event that might have shaped his approach to military affairs: the disastrous 1967 fire aboard the USS Forrestal.
Way back in 2000, I wrote a piece called McCain’s Vietnam for The Nation, in which I described the significance of that event in McCain’s life:
Like many potentially life-altering experiences, McCain’s came as the result of a brush with death. On July 29, 1967, while preparing for his sixth bombing run over North Vietnam in his A-4 Skyhawk aboard the deck of the USS Forrestal, an accidentally fired Zuni missile ripped into his plane’s fuel tank. Within moments, a chain reaction swept the deck of the carrier, triggering fires and explosions, setting off 1,000-pound bombs and engulfing planes, killing 134 men. McCain, slightly wounded, saw body parts fly and watched blistered comrades die before his eyes.
A few months later, sipping Scotch in a Saigon villa with Johnny Apple of the New York Times, McCain reflected on the trauma. “It’s a difficult thing to say,” he said, “but now that I’ve seen what the bombs and the napalm did to the people on our ship, I’m not so sure that I want to drop any more of that stuff on North Vietnam.” (In 1972, a significant number of B-52 pilots and crew engaged in exactly that kind of heroic insubordination, refusing orders to fly missions in the midst of President Nixon’s carpet-bombing of North Vietnam.)
Certainly McCain could not have been unaware of the havoc unleashed by his bombing missions over Vietnam. Though Pentagon war planners and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara preferred to emphasize the antiseptic nature of aerial bombardment against carefully chosen targets, a highly publicized series of articles in late 1966 by Harrison Salisbury in the New York Times described the widespread devastation of civilian neighborhoods around Hanoi by American bombs. “Bomb damage…extends over an area of probably a mile or so on both sides of the highway” near one target, he wrote, noting that “small villages and hamlets along the route [were] almost obliterated.” Several years ago, a chastened McNamara acknowledged that Operation Rolling Thunder, which unloaded 800 tons of bombs a day over North Vietnam, caused more than a million deaths and injuries in Vietnam each year from 1965 to 1968.
Standing stiffly in the sun outside a New Hampshire high school after a campaign appearance, McCain curtly rejects the idea that he had any second thoughts about his role in Rolling Thunder. He denies the accuracy of the quotation from 1967, stumbling briefly over his words before barking, “That wasn’t the exact statement.” Instead, he says, he was simply referring to the “terrible power we had” and reacting to the horror of war. And perhaps it is too much to expect McCain, born on a naval air station in the Panama Canal Zone and programmed virtually since birth for his part in the war, to have let his conscience get the better of him. In any case, within weeks of the ’67 incident, McCain made the fateful decision to plunge back into combat, getting himself assigned to the carrier Oriskany, where he joined an A-4 squadron called “the Saints.” On October 26, 1967, on his twenty-third bombing mission, this one against a thermal power plant in what McCain described in his book as “a heavily populated part of Hanoi,” he was shot down, plunging into a lake just blocks away from Ho Chi Minh’s presidential palace, and taken to prison.
“Nobody made me fly over Vietnam,” McCain says now, as quoted in John McCain: An American Odyssey, the biography by Robert Timberg. “That’s what I was trained to do and that’s what I wanted to do.
McCain often says that he understands how hellish war is, and he said that again last night. Yet while he talks, once in a while, about the Forrestal tragedy, he never mentions his reaction to it.
PS Sorry to those who read an earlier post, which has been removed. I hit the wrong button.